ethiopia awaits

Abiy Ahmed and the struggle to keep Ethiopia together

By Tom Gardner, in Hawassa 

Posted on October 11, 2019 10:58

 © Hundreds have been charged under the anti-terror law Prime Minister Abiy promised to reform. Tiksa Negeri/Reuters.
Hundreds have been charged under the anti-terror law Prime Minister Abiy promised to reform. Tiksa Negeri/Reuters.

“For much of the past year Abiy appeared helpless, barely speaking about ethnic violence in public. But, more recently, faint outlines of a strategy have begun to emerge.”

By the end of 2019, barring an upset, Sidama will be Ethiopia’s tenth semi-autonomous state. A referendum on statehood, which should have taken place in July, is now scheduled for November.

Leaders of the country’s fifth-largest ethnic group are energetically preparing for the enhanced autonomy statehood will bring. Work has begun on a constitution. Billboards have been erected, welcoming visitors to the would-be state as they enter Hawassa, its putative capital.

The result of the vote, assuming it happens, is a foregone conclusion.

The ‘Sidama question’ is a headache for prime minister Abiy Ahmed and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government. Scores were killed in July following the referendum’s delay, with protesters confronting security forces and angry mobs chasing non-Sidama from their homes. The status of Hawassa is contested, and many minorities are worried about their future there.

Meanwhile, the Sidama peoples’ quest for statehood has prompted at least 10 other ethnic groups in the south to follow suit, likely precipitating the break-up of the multi-ethnic and volatile Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR).

 “Our country is sliding down,” says Admasu, a resident of Hawassa and ethnic Wolayta, whose home was destroyed by a Sidama gang when violence broke out in June 2018. He  plans to leave the city after the referendum: “There is no rule of law, no peace and security. Everything is stuck.”

The south is just one of many hotspots on Ethiopia’s federal map, almost all of which intensified in the wake of Abiy’s appointment and the ‘big bang’ liberalisation he set in motion last year.

This inconsistent and at times chaotic process has consisted, principally, of the release of political prisoners and the return of others from exile; the decriminalising of opposition parties; the unmuzzling of media and revision of draconian laws; improved relations with neighbouring Eritrea; and a package of liberal market reforms.

© A referendum on Sidamas statehood is set for November. Tiksa Negeri/Reuters

Ideological disputes

But as the state loosened its grip and free speech blossomed, various conflicts escalated. Nearly 3 million people were internally displaced in 2018 (see map), more than anywhere else in the world. Tensions between states, especially the three most powerful – Oromia, Amhara and Tigray – worsened as relations in the EPRDF soured. This June there was, according to the government, a regional coup attempt in Amhara, and on the same night the head of the federal army was killed in Addis Ababa.

When Abiy took power, the main tasks were thought to be democratisation and reducing the outsized influence of the EPRDF’s historically dominant Tigrayan wing, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

Both were key demands of the protest movement that forced then-prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn to resign – paving the way for Abiy’s Oromo faction, the Oromo Democratic Party (then the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organisation), to take the helm of the coalition. But now, with national elections due next year, the challenge has become a more existential one: holding the country together and preventing further fragmentation.

For the most pessimistic observers, it means averting a bloody Yugoslavia-style break-up.

The comparison is not too far-fetched. Ethiopia, like Yugoslavia (and the Soviet Union, which also disintegrated in the early 1990s), is an ethno-federation in which semi-autonomous states are organised along ethnic lines. The constitution, introduced in 1995, recalls Yugoslavia’s of 1974 by giving each of Ethiopia’s more than 80 ethnic groups the right to form its own state or secede.

The crisis prompted by the statehood claims of southern groups like the Sidama echoes the start of Yugoslavia’s crisis in 1981, when Kosovo protesters demanded the province be upgraded to a republic. Many of Kosovo’s Albanians felt aggrieved that they were more numerous than at least three other groups that had their own national republics—something with which many among the Sidama (who number around 5m) would no doubt sympathise.

There are other parallels. Like Ethiopia, Yugoslavia was for decades dominated by a single party—or coalition—known as the League of Communists, held together by one man, President Josip Broz Tito. When Tito died in 1980, the party collapsed into factionalism and competing ethno-nationalisms.

As the centre weakened the republics increasingly acted like independent states, raising their own armies and promoting their own economies by defying central wage and price mandates, and engaging in trade wars.

Old historical grievances, papered over by Tito and the myth of Yugoslav nationhood, were revisited and exploited by nationalist politicians as tools to mobilise voters. Elections in the republics were followed by secessions, and the unravelling of the federation. This led, almost inexorably, to war and ethnic cleansing.

Since the death of Meles Zenawi, the TPLF strongman who dominated Ethiopian politics from 1991 to 2012, the EPRDF has increasingly come to resemble the post-Tito League, which ultimately fell apart entirely in 1990 when the Slovene delegation walked out of the party congress. As journalist Tamerat Negera argues: “There is no EPRDF anymore. It exists in name only.”

Ideological disputes as well as personal animosities are paralysing an organisation once renowned for its rigid, if sometimes brutal, discipline. Internal EPRDF battles increasingly burst into public view, such as in July when the TPLF issued a highly provocative statement about its sister party in Amhara, the Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), demanding it take responsibility for the events which led to the alleged coup attempt.


A break-up of SNNPR, meanwhile, would likely mean disintegration of the EPRDF’s southern wing, the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement, further complicating the politics of a coalition which ostensibly relies on consensus.

As in Yugoslavia, alleged historical injustices are stimuli for nationalist mobilisation. Almost immediately after Abiy came to power armed youth in Oromia’s West Guji zone began chasing ethnic Gedeos from land they claimed was historically theirs.

Over the next few months hundreds of thousands were evicted. Oromo nationalists have also staked claims to parts of Amhara, as well as Addis Ababa, on the basis of what they argue are historic ownership rights.

Sidama nationalists such as Million Tumato, the leader of the Sidama Liberation Movement, say ethnic statehood is a means to escape “colonial occupation”. Meanwhile, in Amhara, a new nationalist party, the National Movement of Amhara (NAMA), has won popular support with its promises to defend Amharas from outside threats—and to regain territories which they argue were stolen when the federal map was drawn in the early 1990s.

Florian Bieber, an expert on Yugoslavia at the University of Graz, Austria, sees rhetoric of this kind as especially dangerous: “The risk of ethno-federal systems is that they encourage this … they produce a dynamic which is always about finding leaders who represent sub-national groups, whose main legitimacy comes from antagonism, and which is framed as self-protection.”

The risks of fragmentation are aggravated by the expanded autonomy of the most powerful states, all of which are equipped with their own regional security forces. This is most pronounced in Tigray, where TPLF leaders have decamped since Abiy ejected most of them from high office. No longer kingpins in Addis Ababa and with some in its ranks wanted on corruption and human rights charges, the TPLF has focused on building up the region’s police and militia, and developing its economy.

Most controversially, it has refused to hand over the former national intelligence chief, Getachew Assefa, to federal police, leading to a stand-off. The waning of central authority this represents also resembles Yugoslavia: by 1990 even Serbia, which formally supported the status quo, had passed a new constitution which placed republic law above federal law.

“The problem is the regions are not only asserting their constitutional powers but they are going beyond them,” says Yonatan Fessha, a constitutional lawyer. “And you don’t get the impression that the federal government is asserting its own powers where it should.”

Redirecting capital

The shifting balance of power between regions and the centre is apparent in economics, too. Getachew Teklemariam, a former government adviser, says that regional capitals are seeing much more investment, as ethnic elites in Tigray and Amhara in particular redirect capital towards their home states: “There is a change in the nexus between the federal government and the regions – and this is benefiting the regions like no economic incentive would’ve done.”

He adds that regional investment bureaus have grown more powerful in decision-making, especially with regard to land allocation. “If you are a foreign investor, you need to be much more convincing at the regional level than before,” he says.

A particularly striking example of this dynamic came in August 2017 when the Oromia government refused to provide land after the federal investment commission had signed a deal with a Chinese manufacturer. More recently, Tigray has taken the step of reviving its own investment bureau, and set up a new institute for policy research.

Many see greater regional autonomy in economic policy-making as a good thing, should it allow states to experiment and develop strategies more attuned to local needs. “So long as the federal government uses its authority to avoid a race to the bottom, then it’s positive,” says Fiseha Haftetsion Gebresilassie of the Tigray Institute of Policy Studies.

A more balanced distribution of investment might also help diffuse political tensions.

But few are sanguine when it comes to security, which is already highly devolved and now resembles an arms race. Each village, or ‘kebele’, chairman heads a militia consisting of, on average, 50 armed men. Each region commands its own police, including thousands or even tens of thousands of constitutionally dubious “special police” equipped with combat weaponry.

The June ‘coup’ attempt in Amhara was reportedly precipitated by efforts to clip the wings of the region’s special police, which its then-security chief, retired Brig. Gen. Asaminew Tsige, was rapidly expanding – apparently in response to parallel developments in Oromia and Tigray.

“Under the constitution regional states are supposed to have police forces just to maintain law and order – nothing more than that. The special forces are much more than that. They are readied for combat,” says Zemelak Ayele, director of Addis Ababa University’s Centre for Federalism and Governance Studies.

In a recent interview Mustafa Omer, the acting president of Ethiopia’s Somali Region, concurred: “One of the biggest mistakes made along the way [was] creating autonomous security structures in the regions. No country can survive that.”

© Electoral board president and oppositionist Birtukan Mideksa adds credibility to the push for democracy in Ethiopia.

The question of legitimacy

For much of the past year Abiy appeared helpless, barely speaking about ethnic violence in public while appearing more focused on regional diplomacy than events back home. But, more recently, faint outlines of a strategy have begun to emerge. First, elections – which many thought would be delayed or even postponed indefinitely – seem likely to happen next year.

There is, at least inside the EPRDF, reportedly some consensus that a postponement would risk more instability, even if preparations by the electoral board – headed by oppositionist Birtukan Mideksa – remain behind schedule.

After May 2020, Abiy and the EPRDF will have no constitutional right to govern, meaning that at the heart of this calculation lies the question of legitimacy. Many in the ruling coalition are also acutely aware that elections in 2015, in which the EPRDF won every seat in parliament, were almost universally considered a sham. Added to this is the fact that since coming to power in 1991 the EPRDF has controlled all tiers of government.

The protest movement that catapulted Abiy into office was propelled at one level by this profound democratic deficit, and for political tensions to stand any chance of diminishing the EPRDF will have to relinquish some of its monopoly.

A free contest next year would open the door for opposition parties to take at least some seats in parliament and possibly government offices. In Oromia, factions of the formerly outlawed Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) – allied with other nationalist opposition – might see substantial gains, providing it is permitted to formally register as a party.

Similarly, in Amhara, the National Movement of Amhara should take a large chunk of votes from the ADP, assuming it is allowed to campaign freely. And in urban areas pan-Ethiopianist parties could win control of city councils, in particular Addis Ababa.

Abiy’s second gambit is to merge the coalition into a single national party. This is an idea which dates back several years and was originally favoured by Meles before his death as a means to dilute the power of ethnicity in politics.

Since Abiy took over it has been revived as a solution to fragmentation and as a tool to improve his own electoral prospects. One senior EPRDF official says he expects it to be finalised before the election. “[The party] will certainly be different from the EPRDF, ” he says, without further elaboration. According to some recent reports it will be named the Ethiopian Prosperity Party.

But, significantly, it is unlikely the TPLF will sign on. “The greater chance is [the TPLF] will choose not to be part of the new party,” says the insider. TPLF sceptics see in the proposal a ruse to cement the dominance of the ODP. In August it invited parties committed to the preservation of ethnic federalism to join it in a new coalition of so-called ‘federalist forces’.

Arbitrary arrests

All this suggests the election will be the least predictable vote Ethiopia has ever held. But it is still unlikely to be an entirely free or fair contest, and indeed the renewed commitment to holding elections has been accompanied by a return to some of the strong-arm tactics favoured by Abiy’s predecessors.

Hundreds were arrested, seemingly indiscriminately, in the aftermath of events in Sidama in July and in Amhara in June.

Amhara activists claim that around 300 Amharas were imprisoned following the alleged coup attempt and several are to be charged under the draconian anti-terror law Abiy had criticised and promised to reform.

The government has resorted to internet shutdowns and has sent the federal military into several regions in the past year. Even in Oromia, Abiy’s supposed base, opposition parties complain of harassment and arbitrary arrests. In a recent address Abiy declared that he was ready to confront lawlessness “not with a pen, but with a Kalashnikov”.

Added to this are signs the ruling party plans to limit electoral competition by striking pacts with certain opponents. In early October Abiy’s ODP signed a deal with the OLF and the Oromo Federalist Congress, another opposition party, in which nominally they agreed to work together in the interests of the Oromo people. The details were not made public but it likely means the parties will stand aside for each other in certain districts.

Similar so-called “elite bargains” may occur in other regions before election day, reducing the chances of electoral violence and most likely ensuring Abiy himself remains prime minister.

There are several dark spots on the horizon, of which the possible exit of the TPLF from the coalition is but one. The response to delaying the Sidama referendum shows how dangerous it could be if further volatility compels the government to postpone the election, though others contend that holding a messy election with an unpredictable outcome would be worse.

Similarly, any efforts to revise the constitution – Abiy has hinted he would like to introduce an elected presidency, and others are keen to scrap some of its most controversial ethnic provisions – could spark a backlash.

Alemayehu Woldemariam, a constitutional lawyer, argues: “As to the fear that Ethiopia might go the way of Yugoslavia, yes it’s highly improbable, but not impossible. And the factors that might make it possible are: one, not holding the elections as scheduled and two, any attempt to erode or abridge the right of self-determination.”

Meanwhile, from an opposing camp, the prominent activist and journalist Eskinder Nega worries the catalyst for rupture will come if Abiy’s ODP emulates the TPLF by building a “system clearly dominated by Oromo elites”.

“If this happens then, in the long-term, break-up is a real possibility,” he says.

But it remains an unlikely scenario for a country with a far longer experience of nationhood than any of the former communist federations. Serious secessionism is a minority pursuit, even in Tigray where a vocal group of young activists increasingly champion it.

More likely, suggests historian Shiferaw Bekele, is simply “continuous, debilitating crisis”. He likens the current predicament to the so-called ‘era of princes’, between the 18th and 19th centuries, when warring fiefdoms engaged in a perpetual struggle for supremacy: “At that time there was a central authority, but it was weak and unable to stop the cycle.”

But he is optimistic that the threat of disintegration will eventually force today’s elites to negotiate a new settlement. “One of this country’s virtues is respect for the state. […] When they come to the negotiating table, and the spectre [of breakdown] is in front of everyone, they will do what they can to stop it.”


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